Just like many of you, I too decided to dabble in baking and cooking Armenian and Middle Eastern dishes during this COVID-19 quarantine. I have always helped my grandmother in the kitchen, especially with recipes that call for serious manual labor. But I wanted to use this time to test my knowledge and skills and simply try some labor intensive recipes.
I was honored to be asked to contribute to this Dandeegeen series, but I’m no dandeegeen. Maybe a dandeegeen ‘in training.’ I have a demanding full-time job, and I try to travel as much as I can. I also work in my local community with whatever time I have left. My grandmother – my Nenee (Neh-nee) – wishes I was a dandeegeen, but I always tell her “I’m working on it.”
Yeretsgin Zevart Terterian Hagopian is the best cook and baker, hands down. Growing up, I was at my maternal grandparents’ house pretty much everyday, so naturally, we were fed pretty well. Everyone will say their grandmother or mother is the best in the kitchen. But does your nenee make tel baneer from scratch? When was the last time you had some really good tahin-hatz? She also cures her own basturma and soujoukh, and her garden is out of control with fresh vegetables and herbs. And I can’t forget her chikufteh. It has fed three Catholicoi, dozens of Srpazans, Vartabeds and priests; she only makes it on certain occasions. She has now bestowed the task of kneading the bulgur and raw meat concoction onto me. Perhaps a recipe for another time…
My Nenee’s culinary expertise goes back to her childhood and has continued throughout her life’s journey. She was born in Kessab, Syria; when she was eight years old, she moved to Beirut. My grandfather, the late Der Torkom Hagopian, was born in Ourfa, Turkey and grew up in Aleppo, Syria. My grandparents met in Beirut while my grandfather was studying at the Holy See of Cilicia’s seminary. Shortly after they wed, my grandfather was ordained as a priest in the Armenian church, and they spent a few years living in Beirut and parts of Syria before making it America. The rest is history. My Nenee’s dishes are rooted in Kessab, Haleb, Ourfa, Beirut, and so on.
Oh, and did I mention I grew up in the St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church community of Watertown, MA and we have the best bazaar? Enough said.
So for my first Dandeegeen article, I present to you baneer hatz and zakhtar hatz. Traditionally, this is a Middle Eastern bread, often referred to as manakish, manoucheh or manayeesh. But as Armenians, we eat zakhtaar hatz or baneer hatz all the time. It’s great for breakfast, a midday snack, or even a quick dinner with some vegetables, olives and labne.
The best I’ve had is in Lebanon. During my first trip in 2015, we stopped in a remote town for a quick snack. I got ‘hatz’ that was half cheese, half zakhtaar. Fold that together and you have the best bite in the world.
I was having a craving and wanted to learn to make this bread for myself. So for this baking session, I made the dough from scratch and topped it with three different toppings: a savory cheese blend, zakhtaar, and sweet cheese blend.
For the savory cheese blend, I used a mixture of Akawai cheese (Lebanese), Syrian cheese and mozzarella curd. I added dry oregano for additional flavor. The Syrian cheese was slightly salty, as was the akawai, so I chose not to add any salt. You can always use feta cheese if you like things salty. I was able to get all the cheeses from Massis Bakery in Watertown. They come in blocks so I shredded them against a grater. I’ve learned to have one of these in my house. You never know when you’ll need it.
The zakhtaar topping was a thin paste of zakhtaar spice with olive oil. I have a supply from a relative in Lebanon, but you can find good zakhtaar spice from the bakeries in Watertown.
Now the sweet cheese. This is a bread my grandmother makes when we have leftover mozzarella curd from making tel baneer. She has told me this is a traditional Ourfatsi bread, since she has only seen my grandfather’s family make this. It’s mozzarella curd with cinnamon and sugar.
I wanted to recreate the dough as close to what I experienced in Lebanon, so I found the recipe below online. I probably could have gotten this from my grandmother as well. I tried this dough recipe once, and when it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, she offered some tips. I will say, dough recipes take practice because there are so many factors to getting your dough just right.
Here’s what you’ll need for the dough (this recipe will yield about eight pieces):
3 1/2 cups of flour (I used King Arthur all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of lukewarm water
1 tablespoon (about one small packet) of active dry yeast
1 teaspoon of sugar
4 tablespoons of olive oil
Mix flour and salt in a large bowl.
Take a measuring cup and fill with one cup of lukewarm water. Add a packet of dry yeast. Stir. Then add sugar. You might want to add a tablespoon of hot water to get the yeast working. Let the yeast sit for at least 10 to 15 minutes. When you see it foaming and bubbling, you know it’s doing its job (I had an unfortunate experience with this once).
Once the yeast is activated, add it to the flour mixture as well as the oil. Knead the dough for about five to ten minutes until it forms into a ball. Don’t add any additional flour! It will be sticky, but that is ok. You know the dough is right when you can press the dough with one finger, and it springs back up. Make a ‘khatch’ on your dough, and cover with a warm towel or plastic wrap for two hours.
You might be asking yourself, why did you make a cross on the dough before you let it rise? It’s something my Nenee always instructed me to do.
While you wait for the dough to rise, you can work on your cheese blends and zakhtaar paste.
Once the dough rises, take it out of the bowl and knead it a bit more with a sprinkling of flour. Form the dough into a log and separate it into eight pieces. Take each piece and form it into a ball. Place it on a tray, covered, to rise for another hour.
Time to bake! Set your oven to 425 degrees.
Once the dough pieces rise, sprinkle your countertop with flour and get to rolling! I like breads more on the thinner side, but don’t roll too thin. It will cook quickly and look more like a cracker than bread.
Place the rolled out dough on a tray lined with parchment paper or foil. Then spread your preferred topping on the dough. Press the filling into the bread and leave some room along the edges.
Cooking time varies. To be honest, I don’t know how long I had each tray in the oven. Working with my grandmother, you knew something was done based on how it looked (“Atchkee chap!”). I’d say at least 10 minutes. When the edges are slightly golden and you see the cheese bubbling, you are done.
Enjoy with labne, cucumbers, cheeses, olives, you name it. They freeze pretty well so if you know you won’t be able to go through your stash in a week, I recommend freezing in foil placed in a plastic bag.
I hope to soon tackle some savory dishes from Nenee’s cookbook, which is a task in and of itself, trying to decipher her notes. Now that it’s summer, I bet she’ll whip up some refreshing treats that I hope to share soon!